Central Asia’s mountainous borderlands have seen their third bizarre mass murder this summer, this time in Kyrgyzstan.
Police say a border guard conscript in Kyrgyzstan’s eastern Issyk-Kul Province killed four contract border guards and a civilian before fleeing in a stolen car on August 20. Early the following morning security forces killed the suspect, identified as 19-year-old Balbai Kulbarak uulu, in a mountain gorge near the Kazakh frontier, Reuters reported.
The state border service, part of the State Committee on National Security (the GKNB, which is often still called the KGB), said Kulbarak uulu was killed after firing at authorities.
Kulbarak uulu had been hostile to his colleagues the day before the killings, said the Military Prosecutor’s office. The five dead at the Echkili-Tash outpost included the post commander and the wife of one serviceman. Three guards managed to escape.
Mass murders are uncommon in Central Asia, at least prior to this summer.
A clash on the Uzbekistan-Kyrgyzstan frontier that left one dead on each side has sparked a spat between Tashkent and Bishkek about who was responsible. In response, Tashkent has reportedly closed the border to citizens of Kyrgyzstan.
Bishkek says the July 17 shootout occurred when Uzbek border guards opened fire as a dispute with local villagers got out of hand. But Tashkent, after reportedly firing the head of the Border Service, has upped the ante by describing it as an “armed bandit attack” by Kyrgyz guards, regional media report.
The shootout happened in an undemarcated (hence potentially disputed) sector of the border between eastern Uzbekistan’s Namangan Region and southern Kyrgyzstan’s Jalal-Abad Province.
According to the Kyrgyz Border Service, villagers from the settlement of Bulak-Bashi and staff from the nearby Bozymchak gold mine started repairing a road in the undemarcated sector, refusing to heed Kyrgyz guards’ entreaties to stop.
When border guards from Uzbekistan demanded a halt to the repairs, villagers “reacted aggressively,” Kyrgyzstan’s Border Service said, in comments carried by Kyrgyzstan’s state news agency. “As a result the border detachment of Uzbekistan used weapons; Kyrgyz border guards opened return fire,” it continued, leaving one Kyrgyz border guard dead and two Kyrgyz citizens wounded.
The plot thickens on Kazakhstan’s eastern frontiers. For a second time in a month, allegations of hazing among border guards are prompting a rapid response in Astana.
This week, authorities arrested the commander of a border post near China on suspicion of committing violence against other soldiers in his unit, local media report.
The arrest of the commander plus two contract soldiers comes two days after 11 conscripts deserted from the Tersayryk unit in northeastern Kazakhstan to protest their treatment.
The military now says the soldiers deserted in order to report hazing, the practice of senior soldiers bullying junior ones that is common in the armed forces of some former Soviet states.
“They wanted to report to the command post that there had allegedly been an incident of hazing,” Ardak Zamanbekov, an official from the regional command, said in remarks broadcast by KTK TV. The military has opened a criminal case to investigate the allegations.
The incident comes in the wake of a massacre at another border unit on the frontier with China, this one in southeastern Kazakhstan, where 15 people were slaughtered on the night of 27-28 May. The sole survivor, 20-year-old conscript Vladislav Chelakh, confessed to the massacre last week, saying that hazing had made him “flip.”
A young man, believed to be the sole survivor of a massacre late last month at a border post near Kazakhstan's frontier with China, has confessed to murdering 15 people because of disagreements within the military unit, according to video released by the prosecutor’s office.
The film showed 20-year-old conscript Vladislav Chelakh describing the catalyst for the murder as an argument with a fellow soldier who refused to get out of bed, which made Chelakh “boil over and flip.”
This was part of wider disagreements at the border post where “I was humiliated […] insulted too often,” he said.
While the motive may seem weak, it lends weight to an initial theory that the murderer was the victim of hazing, the practice of senior soldiers bullying junior ones common in the armed forces of some former Soviet states.
Chelakh was shown confessing on video at the scene of the crime. Evoking scenes straight out of a horror movie, he confessed to hunting the victims down around the unit and shooting them, setting fire to the building, then killing a gamekeeper in his lodge to eliminate a witness. Chelakh spoke coherently, with no sign of reciting a prepared speech.
Further video showed him confessing to his mother and, in a clip reportedly filmed by Chelakh himself after the crime, hiding in what appears to be a cave in the forest.
Twelve border guards have been found dead at a frontier post in southeastern Kazakhstan, local media report.
A top Border Service official confirmed on May 31 that an investigation was under way after the “charred remains of 13 people” had been discovered in a burnt-out border post the previous day.
The bodies of 12 border guards and one national park ranger have so far been found at the Argkankergen post on the Chinese frontier and the search continues for others, Turganbek Stambekov, first deputy director of the Border Service (which comes under the jurisdiction of Kazakhstan’s domestic intelligence service, the KNB), said. He did not specify if the fire was the cause of death.
Fuelling media suspicions of foul play, Stambekov said the border post is usually staffed by 15 guards in the summer, but gave no indication of the whereabouts of the missing three.
Speculating about what might be behind this unusual incident, local reports suggested an attack on the border detachment (though the possible motive is unclear) or hazing -- it is common in post-Soviet military units for senior soldiers to ritually harass and bully their juniors.
Initial reports that the frontier guards’ weapons were missing were not true, a Border Service source told the Kazinform state news agency. The source said the weapons had been found and sent for tests to see if they had been fired.
Here’s some good news for the Ferghana Valley: Uzbekistan has reopened its frontier with Kyrgyzstan, 18 months after unilaterally screwing it shut. Tashkent closed the border during the bloody ouster of President Kurmanbek Bakiyev in April 2010, dramatically wounding trade in southern Kyrgyzstan.
One study last winter found commerce in the region’s largest market, Kara-Suu, had fallen by 75 percent, encouraging higher food prices and smuggling.
The Dostuk (“Friendship”) border post between Osh and Andijan reopened early on October 26, Bishkek’s AKIpress news agency reported. There is no word yet whether other posts along the 1100-kilometer frontier will open.
But why now, four days before Kyrgyzstan’s presidential election, when Bishkek is bracing for more political or ethnic violence? Wasn’t Tashkent’s original logic to keep Kyrgyzstan’s messy politics contained?
A few possibilities come to mind:
For one thing, the reopening, decided on in Tashkent, looks like a vote of confidence for Prime Minister Almazbek Atambayev, the leading candidate in the October 30 poll. Opening the border would revive commerce, which could add a notch to the premier’s belt. Moreover, though the rights of minority ethnic Uzbeks in Kyrgyzstan may not be the top priority on Uzbekistan’s foreign-policy list, Tashkent has shown concern about the issue, and Atambayev stands apart from the two other leading candidates as less of a nationalist hothead. (Besides, if, heaven forbid, the election should trigger a new round of interethnic strife, Kyrgyzstani Uzbeks in the south would have somewhere to run.)
Something must be going right in the rickety relationship between Dushanbe and Moscow.
In late March, Moscow increased fuel export duties on petroleum products destined for Tajikistan, the poorest country to emerge from the former Soviet Union. This blog speculated on possible causes: Could it have been pressure to allow Russian troops to reassume control over the Tajiks’ wide-open border with Afghanistan, which Moscow says is a conduit for millions of dollars of heroin blighting Russian youth? Or something thornier, such as whether Moscow should pay to station its troops on Tajik soil?
Certainly, Russian primo Vladimir Putin isn’t the kind of leader who responds to irritations with charity. In May, prices for gasoline in Tajikistan jumped 44 percent thanks to his tariffs. But in a sudden about-face, the all-powerful Putin has signed a decree actually lowering – slightly, immediately, even retroactively – those fuel duties. Light crude prices will decrease by a modest 3.7 percent as of July 1, CA-News reported on July 5.
Putin is no doubt concerned by what the US Embassy, in a WikiLeaked cable, described last year as a “poorly trained, poorly paid, underequipped and often under-fed” Tajik border force that allows 40 tons of opiates to enter Russia each year.
Russian news agency Interfax is reporting that Russia is pressing Tajikistan to allow its troops to resume border defense duties in an effort to stem the flow of drugs coming from Afghanistan.
The border between Tajikistan and Afghanistan is long and hard to guard. In some sections, all that separates the two countries in narrow high-walled gullies is a shallow, unfenced and fast-moving river. It is often possible to drive for hours on the barely paved road running alongside the border before coming across any signs of a military presence.
Not surprising, therefore, that Moscow should be applying relentless pressure to be enabled to supplement Tajikistan's tightly stretched frontier forces. But, as one unnamed Tajik source tells Interfax: "Very complex negotiations are under way; Russia wants to return to this geopolitically important southern border of the CIS [Commonwealth of Independent States], but Tajikistan is still cool to the idea."
Reuters cites anonymous security sources and analysts saying Russia may seek to send up to 3,000 border guards to Tajikistan.
Russian border troops left Tajikistan in 2005 in a development that seemed to mark yet another stage of Moscow's gradual strategic withdrawal from the region. But with the drug problem in Russia showing no sign of abating, the emphasis has now moved from broad issues of strategy to more pragmatic areas.
International concern over what’s passing through Tajikistan’s sieve-like borders continues to grow: drugs? guns? Islamic militants? This week, several foreign officials rushed to Dushanbe to sound the alarm, anticipating the dreaded NATO drawdown in neighboring Afghanistan. But while the Americans, the Russians and even the Europeans simultaneously bemoaned the challenges of keeping illicit goods and bad people from crossing into ex-Soviet Central Asia, their conspicuous lack of joint meetings suggested that cooperation -- official statements notwithstanding -- is not a priority.
Moscow, which patrolled Tajikistan’s 1,300-kilometer border with Afghanistan from tsarist times until 2005, is signaling it would like to lead an international coalition there – but without the West’s help, thank you very much. At a conference in Dushanbe, Nikolai Bordyuzha, the secretary general of the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization, said CSTO members should tackle the threat together “because problems which emerge on this border then echo on the territory of the Russian Federation, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and other CSTO member states," Interfax-Kazakhstan reported.
NATO, he suggested, should finish what it started in Afghanistan and keep the situation there from poisoning neighboring countries.
Those concerned about the danger of drugs and militants in Central Asia know that all roads lead to -- or through – Tajikistan, the impoverished failing state on Afghanistan’s northern border. In recent weeks, apprehensions about the country’s sieve-like borders have been stirred up in Moscow and Washington alike. Can the two find enough mutual ground to cooperate on border security in the region, or will mistrust keep them at odds?
In Russia, the latest alarm bell sounded two days ago, when Semyon Bagdasarov, a member of the State Duma’s International Affairs Committee, said the Tajiks are not keeping Afghan drugs out of Central Asia -- and, by extension, out of Russia -- and should either hand control of the Afghan border back to Moscow, or suffer the consequences.
“Either we go back there and there is control of the situation, or it is time for us to introduce a visa regime with Tajikistan,” the Avesta.tj news service reports Bagdasarov as saying. (By some estimates, as many as a million Tajiks work, legally and illegally, in Russia. Moscow raises the specter of a visa requirement from time to time, usually when it is pressuring Dushanbe for some concession.)
Bagdasarov’s insistence that Russia take more responsibility for the porous, 1,300-kilometer border is not surprising. He’s said as much before. But chatter in favor of a return of Russian troops (who guarded the border from tsarist times until 2005) is growing louder. The fashionable position in Moscow seems to be that Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, the sick men of Central Asia, cannot provide adequate security.